Dreaming of earth
By Mark Aitken
Published in Lost Magazine Isuue 4, 2016
Since my fortieth birthday in 2004 I have walked various stretches of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The Camino can start anywhere but its end is at Finisterre, the most western point of Europe. This endpoint is disputed by Catholics who built a cathedral in Santiago to distract pilgrims from following the light.
On 21st September 2014 I started walking from Hendaye on the Spanish/French frontier. After 150km, I reached Bilbao on the 28th. The walk wasn’t planned in as much it was a response to the sudden death of my friend, the writer Chuck Bowden and a need to consider this loss. I decided to take notes and wrote up the following pages on returning.
Caminante son tus huellas el camino y nada más; caminante, no
hay camino se hace camino al andar.
Traveler, your footprints are the path, and nothing else. Traveler,
there is no path. A path is made by walking.
Caminante no hay camino
Unzipping the tent and pulling the curtain back on dawn to smell spearmint wafting through the dew. The sky a sallow gray with a wound of orange gaping east. I pack up quickly, folding everything sheathed in water into the pack. I used my earplugs after the dogs woke me up but now they’re nowhere to be found. I unpack everything and scour the long grass.
Sheep’s bells are chiming with my footsteps on the tar lanes. Cobwebs plaster my face as I walk through bushes. A fresh turd of chocolate brown grass lies next to a single sock draped over a log waiting for its owners return. The animal was bigger than a rodent.
My belongings are reduced to eleven kilos. Already, my camera has retired from duty and refuses to focus. There is no manual over-ride on the clever thing and now it’s nothing but excess weight. But I did take one picture from above the clouds on the mountain scaled on the first morning. An old man dreaming of the earth.
The frontier of Spain and France is porous to the Basque people who traverse this land of mountains and seas formed around the Bay of Biscay at the top of the Iberian Peninsula. Their presence is prehistoric here and no one knows the exact origins. The Romans encountered them in their march westwards to Finisterre - the end of the earth - along with everyone else before and since.
I had walked with an Irish woman who talked a lot as we stepped along the mountain spine in thick fog. I liked being cut off and wondered why I was listening to the chatter about city woes. I slowed down. The gap between us increased and the talking ceased. I wasn’t sure if I should be alone but here we were.
I descended to a city beach. It felt compulsory to get into the water after gnarling over the land. There was hardly anyone around as the sky was grey. Most people don’t come to the beach to swim.
I crossed the city along the shoreline to the albergue or shelter on the edge of town. Completo. There’s a film festival attracting visitors and everywhere is full. These cheap beds are for walkers but I’m too late to the crowd. The city exit is back up a steep rise from the bay. I seemed to have a second wind but I don’t know where I’m walking. Someone has left a water refill container and a chair on the side of the road. I pause to fill up. At about eight kilometres on, I find a hollow by the road. I might have overdone it with 38kms clocked up on the first day. It’s getting dark and I don’t hesitate to pitch up for the night. I can smell spearmint.
The coastal route lopes up and down over folds and creases gauged by rivers. My walking poles were removed at the airport – deemed non-negotiable as weapons. I wanted to ask what they do with passengers trained in martial arts who can break your neck with a short chop of an index finger. Instead, we talked of their arbitrary rules. The man showed me his long list of contraband. I showed him my knees. I don’t think he even knew what walking poles were for.
The final trudge of the day is through a medieval whaling town winding up cobblestones and further up to the steepest point where an albergue is based. My feet are hot. I take off my boots and place them at the end of a row of others. The woman who runs the place offers to drive walkers down to the town so that we may eat. I considered walking but thought I might be sociable. This was a mistake. We all walk into a bar and everyone sits around a bare table talking of menus. I ask the barman about food and he says only after eight. The walkers talk about these strange Spanish eating times. I excuse myself, saying I don’t like the music in the bar – which is true.
I walk into a bar across the road. The music is even worse but I am alone. I order food and red wine. About a minute later, the walkers file into the same bar. One of them asks me if I was trying to get away from them. I say no, I didn’t like the music there and that the music is worse here. A long table is set up next to mine. I translate the menu to a Danish mother and daughter and eat squid en la tinta. I feel like getting drunk but resist. The wine is the same price as water here and always good.
The earplugs reappear that night, sitting invitingly in an open pocket of the pack. The best form of concealment is not to hide at all. I know this from shoplifting as a kid although I never seem to have learned the lesson when losing things.
Over breakfast I sit with an Australian couple. I’d say they were in their sixties but you never can tell with the ozone less naked sun down there. Ralph had a swollen knee and a fancy brace that made it look like a flamingo joint. I admired the brace and he told me I should be admiring his legs. It was good to laugh. He then asked me where I was from and as we had time and he was a colonial, I told him the longer version. New Zealand, South Africa, London, full stop but I’ve never lost the desire to keep moving. He asked what South Africa was like and I told him it was brutal. Having lived there in the past under white rule, it was getting difficult to see much improvement under black rule. Ralph said he didn’t know why anyone would want to live there. I didn’t ask why he lived in Australia.
Growing up in a crude colonial backwash is for some, the first lesson in really understanding where you’re from. You learn that with a pale skin, you are privileged over others without really knowing why this is. No more than the curiosity of a child will tell you that these dark skinned people who have always been here hold more than a few secrets to their chests. No amount of privilege will reveal these secrets. I’ve been inspired to pick away at my ignorance ever since although I don’t know if I’ve uncovered much. I’ve much more in common with the ignorant fearful settlers than the people of that red earth.
I catch a train to the next town, as I want to get into the forests and mountains. I meet a Dutchman called Adrien who has walked for eleven weeks from his home in Holland. He tells me that thoughts left his mind after three weeks and he now dwells on nothing but what is in front of him. I can enter that blank state after a half day of walking through exhaustion but I think he was referring to something different. Adrien has lost one kilo a week and has asked his wife not to throw any old clothes away. He also sings a lot – mainly four words from his ringtone, let it be me. I don’t know the song either so I can’t extend the lyrics any further. Adrien is very happy. He burned out ten years ago and a friend told him about this walk. Family and work prevented him from leaving so he bought a new car and was prescribed anti-depressants. He went back to work. Nothing really changed. Last year his boss told him he had seven years back leave stacked up and that he should take it.
A man and a woman are standing in a hole by the side of a track in the pine forest. It’s about ten feet deep and shaped like a giant cauldron. They scoop water from a puddle. I ask them why they are doing this and the man tells me they are standing in a medieval iron smelter. At one point, this region supplied most of the iron to Europe. Part of the Spanish Armada was built here as with the whaling ships that dragged the punctured beasts back to ports along this coast.
I meet Adrien again and we walk up to a man plodding slowly ahead of us. This man is called Claude and he’s walked from Paris. His pack looks heavy with various rolled up mats and shredded pieces of plastic hanging off it. His belly juts out from beneath a sports shirt and his face says he does not want to continue. He looks like a refugee from the city streets ready to bury himself in the forest. His grey hair belies baby blue eyes. There’s something there that hasn’t been lived yet. As if his overweight shell has to be hauled through the woods - driven by this persistent flicker of possibility.
We descend steeply into a valley. I use a wooden stick to absorb the crush on my knees. The pole was honed by Adrien with his knife. It looks like walnut – the trees bearing fruit at this time of year. Emerald green globes looking like plums concealing a cranium shell. Pickings have been rich with figs, grapes, apples and blackberries. The sweetly rotting smell of figs on the ground oozes at you before you see them.
We meet a man carrying pumpkins and a courgette. His nails and hands are caked in dirt, his shirt dusty and trousers tied with string. He asks me where I’m from and keeps asking until we reach a spec on the map of London. By now we’re speaking English and he tells me with an Irish accent that he used to live in London but has been living in this village for thirty-four years. His ex-wife brought him here. Before he had opened his mouth I’d taken him for a local farmer, which is what he is, except now an Irish local farmer.
I eat with Claude that evening. He refuses wine and I comment that this was unusual for a Frenchman. He says he’s drunk enough wine. He tells me that his kids have grown up. He lost his job in construction and tried once and then again to start a business but failed both times. He’s from the suburbs of Paris, the city being too expensive. It was easy to walk out of the city. He didn’t know what else to do. While walking, Claude said he often gave up and would simply lie down on the ground in his sleeping bag and cover it with pieces of plastic. He’d wake heavy with rain or dew; get up and carry on. Claude described himself as being in a period of transition. His blue eyes hoped for a different future. There was no mention of a wife.
I shared a room with Claude and three others that night. No one slept except Claude who snored like a farmyard. The earplugs didn’t have a chance. We all left early in the morning, leaving Claude contentedly wheezing and oblivious.
I set off with Adrien and we arrive through the mist in a tiny village named after the revolutionary Simón Bolivar. There is a museum but the door is locked. Outside there is a bust of the man and a birth date from 1783. Adrien says he shares the same birthday. I’m more impressed by this co-incidence than he is. Walking on he talks of a film where two strangers meet and then part company without saying goodbye. Soon he does say goodbye. It comes suddenly although I should have seen it coming. I think he wants to speed his pace. I miss his company for all of a few minutes and make the adjustment. All of this is co-incidence. There is no plan.
Yesterday I stopped and scribbled something down at a table outside a bar that was closed. The sun was shining over the hills and there was no one else around. The birdsong was interrupted by the sound of a big motorbike tooling over the ribbons of lanes. I go to cross a road, wondering if the bike is near. It’s upon me instantly coming up the rise. Too fast for me to see it and the sound travelling too slow to warn me. I run across the road as if in city traffic and feel the bike’s back draft. If I’d not sat at that table to write, the bike could have collected me. All co-incidences. Eventually one will kill me. Being too careful will never stop these things happening.
Early morning in the woods induces a singing inside that echoes all around in the silence. A cathedral of elation. I know of no better feeling. The ecstasy of solitude to the point of losing your self - as if seeing through a mirror.
An unseen donkey brays in that plaintive way donkey’s have with the world on their shoulders. I stop and listen as silence folds back in. My clumping footsteps moving forward, always forward. Sometimes the paths are cobbled with round stones laid by Romans. Sometimes they are hollowed out forming tunnels with low branches overhead. Footsteps upon footsteps treading to the end of the earth for over a thousand years. Eventually hijacked by the Catholics who built a cathedral under the stars and called this a pilgrimage. Francis of Assisi walked from Italy and spoke with the birds. Soon after the death of Christ, St James travelled in a boat made of stone from Galilee. He flew up and down this coastline on his winged horse, chasing the Moors back who never reached the north of this peninsula. Then the discovery of the new world and the end of the earth extending beyond Finisterre and the Costa de la Morte. The Cantabrian massif is renamed the Picos de Europa – the peaks being the first sign of Europe as the ships turned the earth’s curve so laden with gold that water lapped over their bows. But still now we walk to the end of the earth. I descend through a narrow hollow. Trees flank the sides, the bark shines where hands have grasped for balance. These trees seeded by those rooted before just like the handprints that preceded mine. Then out of the woods onto a motorway, trucks and cars oblivious to the footsteps haunting the conveyor belt.
Road signs are bi-lingual in Euskara and Spanish. Origins of the Basque language are unknown and bear no relation to any European language. Spanish is sprayed over in black paint. There is graffiti in English – supposedly for the benefit of visitors – This is not Spain. I see a farmer in the distance watching me. He leans against his long stick with all the time in the world as I approach. The man tells me that children here don’t learn Spanish until they go to school.
A blister is occupying too much space in my boot. I lance the thing with a needle and thread, leaving the cotton behind as a wick and daubing the mess with iodine. The outcome is worse than expected and I now have to hobble slowly until the pain subsides. My ecstasy from the morning now humbled.
I reach Gernika that night and decide to have the day off tomorrow. I visit the museum and watch a film about reconciliation. Politicians back slapping each other in front of the Berlin wall; Mandela making speeches; the Northern Irish peace accord, a happy moment in Guatemala that I was unaware of – as if reconciliation were an end in itself. Memories of the first Nazi carpet bombing on 26th April 1936 when Gernika was nearly erased. Franco employing hired contract killers to deal with the enemy within. The memories nagging at the reconciliation. The very existence of Gernika testament to those memories.
I walk through a park that houses an oak tree planted in the 14th century to symbolise Basque freedom. The tree rests in a mausoleum of pillars but its descendants live on – one of them having survived the German bombing. Tortoises with heads on stalks warm their cold blood on an island in a pond. Insistent mechanical leaf blowers herald the autumn in stereo – denying any possibility of contemplation.
There’s a chance that my toe is infected and I can think of nothing better than bathing it in the sea. It’s a short train ride to the coast. As I wait in the station café I hear Irish rebel music sung in Euskara or maybe it’s simply Basque rebel music that travelled to Ireland. Ché lighters are on sale behind the bar.
I meet the Danish mother and daughter I’d seen a few days ago. The twenty year old has drawn the line and wants to return to the city and go shopping. She tells me things are cheaper here. I don’t think she needs a reason for shopping. The mother tells me that over the past few years she got divorced, lost her father and had a cancer scare that turned out to be false. But these are not her reasons for walking. She’s always walked. When I tell the daughter that I’m the same age as her mother, she blushes and an artificial void opens up as I’m placed on the slopes that old people inhabit. She said she thought I was about thirty. Now I’ve blown my cover and her chatter is self-conscious and she starts to interview me.
I find a campsite outside the small town of Mundaka on the coast. The site is sterile and full of people recreating their suburban homes in situ, complete with dining tables, clotheslines and televisions. I walk to a beach and watch a man knee deep in the water reading a book while pacing from one side of the bay to the other. Behind me three layers of train tracks, a motorway and a local road slice off the beach. Rest is not coming easily and I’m missing the solitude of walking. Eventually I end up sitting by a hermitage on a point watching the light drain over the sea and a single white sail knifing diagonally, counting down the remains of the day.
At dawn I return to the empty beach. Blessed by the water and swimming in slow motion. Over morning coffee I watch parents dote over children. Young and old people have free reign here. They’re visible and dignified. Last night I watched a woman slowly walk her grandmother arm in arm along the promenade.
I see a black man laying out his stall for the day. A sheet of plastic on the pavement covered with rows of knock off designer sunglasses, purses and handbags. This is a common sight all over Spain. Only ever men and always very black skinned. It’s rare to see an African here working for anyone but himself. The man breaks for coffee and we speak. His story could be scripted. His name is Mar, twenty-six years old from Dakar, Senegal. He’s been in Spain for two years after crossing the Sahara, reaching Morocco and then floating over the straits to fortress Europe. En route he encountered many bandits. His tongue is Wolof but he also speaks French and Spanish. There are other men from his country here and they all live in the neighbouring town. There are no women who speak Wolof here. Mar says he likes the town, as he isn’t hassled by police like his brothers in Barcelona and Madrid. He has no papers. People at home think he is rich.
I say that the name of this town sounds like it could be in Africa. Mar smiles softly. He fondles his mobile phone that’s held together with sellotape. Last year I bought a leather bag from a Senegalese not too far from here. His beard was grey. I didn’t think he would ever make it home and I wondered if this thought nagged him. The only thing I’ve ever heard these men complain about is the lack of women from their own country. They leave home because there is no work and they have no money to get married. When they do have some money they have no one to marry. And the chance of making just a little more money keeps them from returning home.
I pick up the walk again outside Gernika. Sizzling power lines overhead cut through the pine forest. I stop and stare at a sunlit yellow daisy emanating an aura. I have to clean my glasses to make sure that it’s not an illusion. Insects have all the fun.
Walking through a storm drain tunnel, someone has written, Love is an experience, not a position. This makes a change from the constant bombardment of graffiti demanding Basque independence and amnesty for political prisoners. Taking a position never seems to offer much love.
I yank long green grass from the side of the road and feed it through farm fences to horses and cows. They only ever chomp down once and then step back staring at me. Flies colonise patches around their eyes and they shake their heads to produce a brief hovering cloud that immediately resettles. I wonder if the animals dream of a world without flies.
The wind is a turbine rush high up in the pines. My hand has discovered different grips on the walking stick, making it feel dedicated. Something so simple feeling like an expensive bespoke suit. I see another graffiti, sometimes big changes happen because of insignificant decisions. I ponder this and consider that all decisions are insignificant until there’s a consequence. But what’s really insignificant is me. Surplus to what’s required. If I disappeared now and left my stick on the path, how long would it be before someone picked it up and poked the ground with it? The walk would continue without me.
I stop for a lunch of cheese, anchovies, bread and wine. The more you eat, the less you carry. I lay back and open my eyes to the canopy above. Swaying backlit leaves all shades of green. I hear a man singing as he gets nearer. His audition for the opera going well, the singing ceases as he walks past but he picks it up again around the corner. He must have seen me.
I reach a place called Lezama after walking an hour and a half on hard roads with no give. The albergue is almost full. A big room bustling with bunk beds and walkers waiting for the lights to be switched off. I find blue-eyed Claude outside smoking a pipe. Somehow he’s overtaken me.
The busy manager offers me a bed but I know there are two many people in one room for me to get any sleep. He asks me my age and apparently I’ve reached a point of being allowed a private room. I take a look and see I would be sharing with one other. I already know who it is. It seemed like a good time to mention how Claude kept us awake the last time we shared a room. Of course, he had no idea about this. Claude then offered me the room solely for my use but I wished him a good night’s sleep.
I find a bar and order a gin and tonic. This ritual is an echo from years ago when after a particularly gruelling slog in the sun I reached an endpoint. The bar man looked the other way as he poured gin over rocks of ice blending with tonic water and sliced lemon into a pint glass. It was so perfect, I ordered another and of course, it wasn’t as good as the first. In fact, no gin and tonic has ever matched that one. I meet another Dutchman called Jan and we go and find somewhere to eat.
Jan tells me his wife left him for a work colleague twenty years ago when he was thirty-seven. He gave up his full time job and worked with people who repaired and resold second hand goods for the benefit of the homeless. Most of his clothes were second hand and he tells me he hardly ever buys anything new. In the summer he lives in County Leitrim, Ireland where he nurses grapes with a friend and produces wine. He then gives the wine away. He says that Ireland is good for building polytunnels as they don’t bother with planning permission.
Jan has months of walking ahead, with no real deadline and he’s considering not returning to his life in the Netherlands. He thinks it’s become a little too settled for his taste. Politics and positions have taken root. His parents still find his way of life difficult to comprehend and don’t know what to say to the neighbours about their son. He has no wife. He has no job. What can you say? Jan says people are always talking about making a change and escaping the trap they’ve set but they seldom do. It’s always left for tomorrow.
Apart from his pack, Jan mentions he owns another suitcase with winter clothes that’s been left at his daughter’s house. He also has a small book of photos and his grandfather’s medal from the war. I ask him if there’s anything he could do without and he says he could lose the photos as he has his memory. He would want to hold onto the medal, though.
I pitch my tent in the dark in a vacant lot across the road from the albergue. My wind up torch dies and I blindly go through the motions. By now I know exactly where everything is. I grew up with a blind dog that never bumped into anything until we moved house. Then it would take her all of a day or two to imagine everything in its place and she would see again. I scribble in the dark about Jan and his few possessions; Claude sleeping soundly on his own and myself safe in the knowledge that I know how to reach everything I need while being unable to see.
The final stretch to Bilbao is going to be hard roads through light industrial suburbs so I break off and wait at a lonely train station. It’s a grey Sunday morning and there’s no way of telling when the next train will be. A young man arrives at the same time, dragging regrets of last night with him. He starts to throw up into a bin. It’s just the two of us on the single platform and I consider resuming the walk. Waiting for a train seems pointless when you have walking boots on. Another man arrives and he tells me the next train is arriving soon. He’s another Senegalese but this man has no work. He lives in Bilbao and tells me where I might find a place for the night. We glide through tunnels and all at once arrive in the city.
Walking along the river that winds through the city I bump into the Australian couple. Ralph mentions that the building in front of us looks like a ship. It’s made from sheets of titanium and appears set to sail down the river. The last vessel not to launch itself in what was once Spain’s biggest port.
After lunch I order brandy at the bar. The barman places the glass sideways on the bar and pours the rusty brown liquid in until it almost overflows. The glass made to measure. I’m acknowledging the end of my walk.
That night I drink wine at a table and watch four men carry a double-bed frame and lean it against a wall next to some rubbish bins. They go away and return with a mattress and leave that next to the frame. Ten minutes later an African man spots the bed. Without hesitating he picks up both the frame and the mattress and hauls it away on his back to a place where many of his countrymen will share a small room.
In the morning the airport bus follows the river up the estuary and I think of the people still walking to the end of the earth. I can’t see them but I know they’re there.
On landing in London I walk across the runway to the airport. A man walks up and says hello. I don’t recognise him and he says hello again – this time, looking a little put out. He has to remind me of our encounter in the woods at the medieval iron smelter. He lives in London and here we are, on the same plane. Another co-incidence although I realise I’m already shutting down to readapt to the city. We lose each other in the halting queues.
It takes at least two weeks to absorb the shocks of being back in the grime, the noise, the tension and the lack of space in all directions. I resist and feel like the man in Invasion of the Body Snatchers pretending to be a zombie. I have to learn to put up with this or get the hell out of here. Then one morning I see a builder sweeping grit off the street. He pauses and carefully picks up two earthworms and frees them in the grass.
I watch two old labourers talking on a train. Their hands are worn; fingers curled in scoops and they look Irish. I listen to their talk but I can’t understand a word. I listen harder and eventually ask them what language they’re speaking. They tell me Irish and I say, not the Irish I would understand. I say that it doesn’t matter, it sounds like soft music and that’s good enough. Their smiles knock a small chink out of my city armoury.